CW: death, accidental child death, murder, dead bodies, blood
Mallory had a little brother, for a while.
She remembered him as a grasping, sticky thing, with fat fingers that were always wet. He loved her, she supposed. He always wanted to hold her hand, sit in her lap, press his warm, sweaty little body against her, dampening her clothes, slicking her skin.
Joseph drowned at the age of six. It was an accident. Mallory was nine, too young to do it on purpose. But it laid the groundwork for everything that came after, because the absence of Joseph was a cool, breezy thing. Without him always grabbing her, Mallory could feel the rest of the world: the wind against her skin, the rough fabric of the couch cushions all to herself, the cold shock of ice in lemonade that she didn’t have to share.
When Mallory was twenty-three, she killed for the first time on purpose. Not a drowning. Mallory could only imagine what that would be like, trying to hold someone under the water. How they would clutch at her then, and rip her skin with their fingernails! No. Poison was better, a remote, touchless thing that left the awful, grasping pain where it belonged: with the dying.
Mallory ran a boarding house at the edge of town. It really was a beautiful place, all starched linens and intricate lace, with a bedroom upstairs for herself and three downstairs for ladies of good repute in need of an affordable place to live. Mallory doted on them, really. Everyone knew that. They were like her own sisters, or, as Mallory grew older, her daughters. When one got sick, everyone was grateful that Mallory was there to tend them. She would stand in the doorway to the bedroom, in full compassionate mode, watching the poor young ladies waste away, soothing them with her voice.
Mallory didn’t take pleasure in their suffering, of course. What pleasure there was came afterwards, when the ladies’ possessions and bank accounts passed into Mallory’s hands (the poor things who died never had any other relatives). And of course, the life insurance that Mallory had taken out on them. But that was only fair. The ones who got sick could not work, and therefore could not pay rent, and this way if they did die, they could make things right with their beloved landlady. Mallory would never call herself greedy, or violent. She was just practical. And the whole thing went quite well for many years. Until Janice.
Janice had dark hair that curled up slightly at the ends, bright blue eyes, and the manner of a girl just reaching adulthood: shy, idealistic, credulous. In that, she was no different than the dozens of other young women who had passed through the boarding house, whether they left on foot or with a coffin as conveyance. What was different with Janice was obvious the moment she walked into the parlor, and Mallory caught sight of something alarming: just above Janice’s right wrist, there was a glob of red jam. Mallory found herself unable to look away from it, to the point where Janice noticed her staring. The girl blushed red, and then shockingly, stuck out her tongue and licked up the jam, leaving her wrist glistening with saliva, and, Mallory guessed, still sticky.
It was unlucky for Mallory that she was so distracted by Janice’s messy habits as a tenant that she failed to notice one other major difference between Janice and the other women that Mallory had killed (because of course, Janice had been destined for the grave as soon as she licked up the jam on her wrist). Janice was, it turned out, quite unexpectedly intelligent. She alone guessed correctly that the source of her continued illness was not some unnameable disease, but arsenic poisoning.
Unfortunately for Janice, she did not discover this fact until it was too late to save her life. Unfortunately for Mallory, Janice made a futile attempt to flee her death and Mallory’s victory on her final night, by rushing out of the house into the dark. Without Janice’s body, Mallory could not prove her death, and so would not take ownership of her possessions, or collect her life insurance. Mallory was forced to give chase.
It was near midnight, but there was a full moon, bright enough that the trees cast shadows onto the ground. Mallory could hear Janice’s ragged breathing and stumbling steps in the woods in back of the boarding house, but the tree branches grasped at Mallory’s clothing, scraping her skin, slowing her down. Gradually though, the noises in front of Mallory grew quieter, and then there was silence. Janice had gone, but whether she had passed into death or the deeper woods, Mallory did not know. She discovered the truth by tripping over something that gave slightly against her foot, and cushioned the fall she took. Janice’s body.
Mallory’s hands, held out by instinct to arrest her fall, sunk into the damp forest soil. Mallory scrambled up and away from the body, but her skirt caught onto something, and she fell again, this time landing next to Janice in the dirt. Their faces were turned toward each other as they lay there, and Mallory could see that Janice was dead. She was dead. Which made it impossible that the thing holding onto Mallory’s skirt was not a tree branch, but Janice’s hand, the fingers blanched white with how strongly they gripped.
Terror flooded Mallory from her heart to her stomach, and she wondered if that was how poison felt, invading your body, killing you from the inside. She tore at her skirt, unable to free herself, falling again, struggling. She stopped only when she felt Janice’s other hand wrap around her wrist.
Janice’s dead fingers were sticky with something: forest damp or possibly the vomit that she’d retched up at the boarding house, her body trying desperately to expel the poison. Mallory carefully lay herself down on the ground, terrified, dry-mouthed and panting, looking into Janice’s face once more. Janice’s eyes were still fixed in death, but her mouth opened and shut a few times, with a smacking sound. Dead lungs forced air through her throat to form two words:
Mallory’s mother had been fond of fairy tales. She’d told some to Mallory after little Joseph had died, probably hoping Mallory could get lost in fantasy and not in the grief she surely must feel for her brother, even though she showed little of it. Mallory had been fascinated by the darker stories, where death was a force, strong and frightening. So she knew this tale, that of an unburied corpse, unable to receive last rites, dead and hungering for one thing only: absolution and burial in a church yard. The corpse would not loosen its grip until it was taken where it wanted to go. Mallory could not return to the boarding house. She could not go to anyone for help. She could do nothing else in her entire life until she could work out how to get the thing that had once been Janice to let go of her.
Mallory began to operate then on two separate levels. Even as she screamed internally, wanting to tear Janice’s hand to ribbons, she rose calmly and picked up the body, cradling it in her arms. Janice was too recently dead to be cold, and damp tendrils of her black hair stuck to Mallory’s neck.
There was a church yard not far from the boarding house, and Mallory walked there by the light of the moon, emerging from the trees with a dead body in her arms that stunk of vomit and sweat. When the low stone wall that bordered the graveyard became visible, Mallory nearly cried with relief. There was no one around, and the wall was short enough for Mallory to reach over. But just as she was about to drop Janice’s body onto its desired resting place, Mallory heard a deep growling noise.
Mallory’s mind told her that the sound came from a dog, but the shudder that ran through her, leaving her heart racing and her mouth dry, said that it was something much worse. Mallory turned her head to see a creature illuminated in the moonlight, standing inside the graveyard with its front feet on the wall.
The thing was large and covered in coarse black hair. Clumps of dirt clung to its claws, as if it had just dug its way out of someone’s grave. It had a dog’s face, with bared white-yellow teeth, but its eyes glowed red and orange, like they were made of flames.
Mallory’s memories of fairy tales supplied the creature’s name: it was the kirkegrim or church grim, a spectral black dog that guarded the graveyard against intruders, including the unconsecrated dead who desired entrance. It might have been a real dog at some point, sacrificed and buried, or something that was never of this Earth, arising by instinct where one world abutted another; the clean peace of consecrated ground against the rest of the world, bloody and violent. Either way, Mallory was not at the end of her ordeal: she would not be able to get Janice onto consecrated ground until she’d fought her way past the grim.
Mallory looked around for a weapon and could see nothing, no loose stones or tree branches. Reluctantly, she hugged Janice’s body tighter against her chest and turned away from the graveyard, back to the wood. A disappointed moaning sound came out of Janice’s dead mouth, and she drooled fluid onto Mallory’s chest, enough that Mallory could feel the dampness against her skin. Mallory felt a wetness on her own cheeks as well and realized that she was crying, holding her dead victim in her arms as if she was a lost lover whom Mallory could not bear to let go. Mallory didn’t even have a hand free to clean her own face. She was barely able to grasp a thick branch and drag it, along with Janice’s body, back to the graveyard.
Mallory looked the grim in the face, fire-eyes and pointed teeth, and swung the branch as hard as she could. Her aim was true: she hit the grim in the chest. It made a yelping sound as its feet lost their grip on the wall, and it fell backwards into the graveyard. Mallory had Janice’s body up on the wall with her next breath, the drooping head and shoulders sliding over. As the body began to fall, Janice’s fingers loosened their grip on Mallory’s arm.
But she didn’t reach the ground. Instead, Mallory was startled by the arc of blood that hit her, splattering a line across her chest, and she realized with a dull horror that it was Janice’s blood, not pumping from her heart, but expelled with such violence that it flew with great energy all the same. The grim’s claws had carved through Janice’s neck and shoulder.
Mallory made a noise of panic and yanked Janice’s body back into her arms. The wound had barely missed her face, and if Janice’s face were to be deformed, it would all be for nothing. Without being able to prove that this was Janice’s body, no death certificate would be issued, and no payoff would come. Mallory managed to heft Janice over her shoulder, cradling her bleeding body protectively against her chest. That freed her right hand, and Mallory began her assault in earnest.
The grim matched her attack with its own, growling and whining. Mallory’s arms tore beneath its claws, her body wet now with her own blood. The grim could catch the branch in its teeth, but it was unable to rip it from Mallory’s grasp, and it took blow after blow to its face and chest.
But it made no difference. No matter how hard Mallory struck, how painfully the grim yelped, it showed no sign of damage. Because how could you hurt something that was either dead or else had never lived at all?
Mallory began to drift away from herself again, to a curious place, a dream of death in the cold river. The water would wash everything away, even cleaning Janice’s blood and vomit, her sticky fingers. But the thought of Janice holding onto her, even in death, was more than Mallory could bear.
Salvation came to Mallory on this borderland between killing field and holy ground in the form of a priest, who emerged from the church to investigate the commotion in his graveyard. The battle eased as he came near, and for a moment, the man just stared at the scene, the blood and death and massive, growling dog.
“Please,” Mallory begged. She fell to her knees, and Janice’s body slid down her shoulder and flopped onto the ground in front of the priest, her white fingers still clutching tight against Mallory’s arm. “Absolution,” Mallory whispered.
The priest’s gaze widened, but he knelt in the dirt, murmuring prayers barely audible over the sound of the grim’s harsh panting and growling on the wall beside them. It seemed very dog-like at that moment, head tilted in a classic pose of canine curiosity. When the priest began to sprinkle holy water over the body, reciting the Absolve, the grim ceased its warning snarls.
In a burst of strength, Mallory heaved Janice’s body off of the ground and onto the wall, and now the grim made no move to stop her. As Janice’s body crumpled onto consecrated ground, her fingers loosened on Mallory’s arm, one by one. But it happened too slowly to prevent Mallory having to lean over the wall herself.
Mallory didn’t understand what had gone so horribly wrong until the grim bared its teeth and lunged for her. Mallory’s battle wounds weren’t just on her arms, she realized at that moment, and they weren’t minor cuts. Her clothing was soaked in blood, and she knew now that it was her own, and far too much. Mallory was dying.
Behind Mallory, the priest began hastily reciting prayers for her, the last rites. But the absolution never came. As Janice’s fingers finally let go, the priest reached for Mallory, intending to impart the blessing through the laying on of hands.
Mallory couldn’t bear it, not one more touch, not one more awful sweaty hand. She flinched away, and the blow from the grim that was meant for her fell onto the priest instead, his throat ripped out by the grim’s claws. The hapless priest fell to the ground, and Mallory landed beside him, both of them soon to be unconsecrated dead, with salvation available only if they would wrap their cold, dead fingers around someone else’s arm.
Written for the Paranormalcy Zine
Public domain photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels